Barack Obama on Ethics

Last Updated : Mar 07, 2011


Early in the 2008 election cycle, Senator Obama pledged to only use public funds as a means of ensuring that he would not be beholden to special interests. After he decided to take public funds, he was asked about the paper he signed to that effect.

During the 2008 campaign for the Presidency, Senator Obama made numerous specific and broad promises concerning ethical reform and his administration. Among the broader promises was more transparency, ending the abuse for good, and no more secrecy. The more specific promises included the list shown below, and these promises were echoed in speeches, interviews, and debates throughout the campaign.

  • Political appointees prohibited from working on regulations or contracts directly related to prior employer for 2 years
  • Former Obama staffers prohibited from lobbying administration
  • Absolute Gift Ban
  • Shine light on earmarks and pork barrel spending
  • Meetings more open to the public
  • 5 day public review for bills
  • Lobbyist meetings available to watch online
  • Corporate tax breaks and pork barrel projects online
  • End Wasteful No-Bid Contracts
  • Reform Private Contractor Process

During the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, a number of people were identified by news outlets as being in possible violation of these ethics promises. 

After assuming office, President Obama issued an executive order implementing rules that were in line with the ethical statements made during the campaign. This includes a ban on gifts, a ban on hiring people to work in the area that they lobbied in in the previous two years, and a pledge made by people working in the administration not to lobby in the field after leaving the office. However, included within the executive order was a section allowing for a waiver from those rules. Two days after the order was issued, the rules were waived to appoint a former Raytheon lobbyist as a Deputy Secretary of Defense.

Not long after assuming office, President Obama signed into law numerous pieces of legislation that violated most of the ethics pledges. This legislation included the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) (The Stimulus) bill and the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Both of these pieces of legislation were passed without the 5 day viewing period. Since being elected, President Obama has made no move to enact a measure to allow the public to view lobbyists meetings online for this or any other legislation.

In addition to making a pledge to show lobbyist meetings online, President Obama made numerous distinct promises to place health care reform meetings on CSPAN. No effort was made to honor this pledge and it was broken almost immediately.

Among the items discussed often by Senator Obama during campaign was the use and abuse of earmarks. When discussing the earmark process, Senator Obama used the term as a reflection of spending improprieties and pork spending. After the passage of the ARRA, numerous sources began to note that the legislation was riddled with spending projects that most Americans would see as "pork" or improper and unnecessary spending. President Obama responded to these accusations by repeatedly asserting that the legislation contained no earmarks. While it is true that the earmark process was not used in the creation of the legislation, the major objection to earmarks was the pork nature of their spending and not the legal process used to acquire the funds. The amount of the spending with no oversight violates the pledge to place pork projects online. The assertion that Americans opposed the earmark and not the spending violates pledges for transparency and honesty.

Note that this item only addresses the ethics pledges made by President Obama and a comparison of his actions to his those pledges. To see a list of all the controversies, check here


Campaign Video

As part of the 2010 campaign, Senator Obama made a series of videos discussing various aspects of his platform. As for the ethics portion of the platform, the video shown below was created. In this video, Senator Obama touts the "Google for Government" project, and advocates for earmark reform to create more transparency. He asserts that he will not hire lobbyists, that he will place meetings online for all to see, and will place bills online for 5 days before he signs them. 


Campaign Events

During the 2008 Presidential election campaign, Senator Obama spoke often about his ethics plan at campaign events. He noted an end to the revolving door, and lobbying in areas where you recently worked.

These pledges were some of the hallmarks of the Obama campaign. They were echoed on both campaign stumps and news appearances, as seen below for ABC News in January of 2008.

The phrase "no more secrecy" was often used to describe Senator Obama's plan. In addition to the 5 day review period for legislation, Senator Obama often touted the recording of meetings between officials and lobbyists and placing them online.


Campaign Financing

At the beginning of the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama pledged to use the public funding system in the general election. On June 19, 2008 Senator Obama's campaign filed the necessary paperwork to opt out of the public funding system and run solely on private donations.  The clip below shows a "Meet the Press" interview at the time when Senator Obama first began to consider opting out of public funding. Senator Obama is asked about breaking his word and then pledges to meet with Senator McCain's campaign and reach a deal that was fair to both sides.  At the time Senator Obama decided to refuse public funding he had raised over $210 million dollars compared to Senator McCain's $90 million.


Blueprint for Change

As part of his 2008 campaign, Senator Obama made a series of blueprints for change. One of these was concerned with ethics and dealt with transparency in government, and with lobbyist reforms. In that blueprint, Senator Obama promised to do a number of things such as restricting the ability of administration members to work as lobbyists after their time in the administration is complete. 

  • Close the revolving doorrn
    • Political appointees prohibited from working on regulations or contracts directly related to prior employer for 2 years
    • Former Obama staffers prohibited from lobbying administration
    • Absolute Gift Ban
  • Increase transparencyrn
    • Shine light on earmarks and pork barrel spending
    • Meetings more open to the public
    • No more secrecy
    • 5 day public review for bills
    • Lobbyist meetings available to watch online
    • Corporate tax breaks and pork barrel projects online
  • End Wasteful No-Bid Contractsrn
    • Reform Private Contractor Process
    • End the abuse for good


Lobbyists in Transition Team

After the election and during the transition from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration, numerous articles were written, noting the number of former lobbyists who were overseeing the transition and being appointed to the new administration.

  • Henry Rivera, a former Democratic commissioner on the Federal Communication Commission who was involved in planning for the agency’s transition. He dropped out of that role because he had represented clients on communications policy in the last year and has been moved to the team handling science, technology, space and the arts. 
  • Keith Harper lobbied early in 2008 year for Native American tribes, and was overseeing Interior Department Issues
  • Pamela Gilbert was overseeing the Consumer Products Safety Commission, and is a former executive director of the agency who as recently as two years prior lobbied for a consumer advocacy group. Within the previous year she had lobbied for the company Barr Laboratories, for an investor group, and for an antitrust enforcement group.
  • Theodore Shaw oversaw Justice Department and civil rights areas. He was a litigator for an arm of the N.A.A.C.P. He has registered as a lobbyist for the group in the past, but N.A.A.C.P. officials say he has not lobbied in the past 12 months.
  • David J. Hayes was part of the 12-member group overseeing the transition and co-head of the team handling the areas of energy and natural resources, is the chairman of the environmental practice at the law and lobbying firm Latham & Watkins. He was personally registered as a lobbyist as recently as 2006, for clients including San Diego Gas and Electric.
  • Sally Katzen was a member of the supervisory group who is also on teams for the office of the president and government operations. She was registered last year to lobby for the pharmaceutical company Amgen on Medicare reimbursements.
  • Louisa Terrell was another member of the top working group. She is on leave from the public policy office of the Internet company Yahoo! Tom Wheeler, another of the 12, is on leave from a firm that invests in technology companies and before 2004 lobbied for the cable television and wireless industries.
  • John L. White, a former Clinton official, was charged with overseeing the new Defense Department. He was a partner in a firm that invests in defense contractors.
  • Michael Warren was charged with overseeing Treasury. He was chief operating officer of a firm that lobbies for clients including the U.S.-India Business Council.
  • Thomas Donilon oversaw the State Department transition and was a partner in the law and lobbying firm O’Melveny and Myers. Until 2005, he lobbied for Fannie Mae.
  • Wendy R. Sherman, the other official charged with reviewing the State Department, once headed Fannie Mae’s charitable foundation.
  • Mr. Lu, the transition’s executive director charged with policing potential conflicts of interests, may have his own appearance problems. His wife, Kathryn Thomson, is a lawyer who represents corporate clients dealing with federal environmental regulations, while his older brother, Curtis Lu, is a top lawyer for Fannie Mae. (Such family connections may not be disqualifying conflicts depending on the nature of the transition job, ethics lawyers said.)
  • Sandy Berger, the Clinton national security adviser, founded Stonebridge International, a consulting and lobbying firm focused on helping clients resolve government issues here and overseas. Mr. Berger took with him Mr. Warren, the former executive director of the president’s economic council who became chief operating officer of Stonebridge and has now become a major contributor to the transition in the pivotal areas of the Treasury Department and economic policy.
  • John O. Brennan, a former Central Intelligence Agency official working on its transition, is president and chief executive of the Analysis Corporation, an intelligence contractor.
  • Lori Garver is on the NASA review board and was president of a strategic consulting company, Capital Space LLC, and previously worked for the aerospace company DFI International.
  • Mozelle Thompson, charged with reviewing the Securities and Exchange Commission. She ran a legal and policy consulting business for companies including
  • Jami Miscik, leading a review of American intelligence agencies, was the head of intelligence analysis at the Central Intelligence Agency during its biggest embarrassment: the botched assessments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. She then moved on to become a senior official managing risks in emerging markets for the investment bank Lehman Brothers, until its collapse this fall.


Executive Order - Lobbyist Reform

The day after his inauguration, President Obama issued an executive order denoting the ethics pledge that those working in his administration would be required to take.


Rules Waiver

Two days after the executive order enacting the ethics pledge was issued, a waiver was issued to appoint a former Raytheon lobbyist to a position as a Deputy Secretary of Defense. OMB Director Peter Orszag made the following statements.


Enacted Legislation - Transparency and Passage

Just after President Obama's swearing in, numerous pieces of legislation were passed and signed into law without the promised 5 day review period. Many, were voted on without the lawmakers even seeing a version of the final legislation prior to the vote. Most, were past with even less transparency for the process and with no inclusion from the people as a whole or Congressional Republicans. This legislation included:


The Stimulus

Of the legislation enacted since President Obama assumed office, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), otherwise known as the Stimulus, has become a lightning rod for criticism. The stimulus was rushed through Congress in a manner that was even more urgent than the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. The bill was passed through so quickly that the vote had to be held open for several hours to allow Senator Sherrod Brown to return to DC from attending a parent's funeral to cast the deciding vote.

Not long after the bill passed, every major news outlet from the San Francisco Gate, to the Wall Street Journal, to Money, to the Washington Post, all wrote articles noting the vast amount of pork spending within the bill. 

Part of President Obama's ethics reform dealt with the abuse of earmarks in funding. Although most Americans view earmarks as the equivalent to pork spending, an  earmark is a technical tool with a  specific definition. This tool was not used in the process of the ARRA, and despite the vast amounts of spending that most Americans would view as "pork," President Obama has maintained that the bill is ethical because it did not use earmarks. In interviews, speeches, and press conferences, President Obama repeated stated that there were no earmarks in the Stimulus legislation.


Health Care Pledge - Negotiations on CSPAN

During the build up to the 2009 and 2010 health care reform, President Obama pledged numerous times to show the negotiations on CSPAN and see the negotiations. No move was made to honor this pledge and it was broken almost immediately.


Additional Controversies

In addition to the problems with legislation, there are a number of additional controversies that can be found here.

Voting Record

On year Moratorium on Earmarks

In March of 2008, the senate voted on an earmark put forth by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. The amendment would have enacted a one year moratorium on earmarks for the 2009 fiscal year. The measure failed to pass in a 29-71 vote. Barack Obama voted in favor of the one year earmark moratorium.

Barack Obama voted in favor of the one year earmark moratorium.

Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007

In January of 2007, the Senate voted to pass the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 by a 96-2 margin. The legislation enacted ethics rules for Congress and lobbying. Barack Obama voted in favor of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.

Barack Obama voted in favor of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.


Sponsored and Cosponsored Legislation

Session-110; Bill Number-S 453; Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2007 - Prime Sponsor

A bill to prohibit deceptive practices in Federal elections.


[1] Website: The New York Times Article: In Transition, Ties to Lobbying Author: DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK Accessed on: 11/23/2010

[2] Website: Fox News Article: Congress Passes $787B Stimulus Bill, Sends It to Obama for Signature Author: Chad Pergram Accessed on: 11/23/2010

[3] Website: ABC News Article: Two Days After Instituting Ethics Rules, President Obama Waives them for Deputy Pentagon Secretary N Author: Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller Accessed on: 11/23/2010

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